After more than a week of being second-guessed and criticized by students unhappy with their decision on high-school boundaries, Arlington School Board members on Dec. 15 promised to engage in a more robust dialogue moving forward.
But several board members pushed back – in some cases, hard – against what they complained was faulty information and mistaken assumptions by critics.
“The buzzwords are nice, but one of the things we want for you is to become thinkers, to analyze information and take a step back before you speak,” School Board member James Lander said after sitting through student speakers complaining about the outcome of the redistricting process.
“Listen twice as much as you talk,” Lander said, quoting his father. “You’re going to have to be open to other people’s points of view. Be thinkers and not followers.”
Complaints from students were centered largely at Washington-Lee High School, whose overcrowding led to a Dec. 5 School Board vote that will send some future students to Yorktown High School and others to Wakefield High School. Current students at the school will not be impacted, and those with siblings already at the school will have the opportunity to attend Washington-Lee.
Student speakers voiced concern that the redistricting option selected by the School Board will make Washington-Lee and Yorktown high schools more white and upper-income, sending minority and low-income students to Wakefield.
Matthew Herrity, who penned a lengthy critique of the boundary-change decision for the Washington-Lee High School student newspaper, told School Board members they needed to “put diversity at the forefront” of boundary changes.
“Arlington has the opportunity . . . to reverse a trend of segregation,” he said.
The complaints from students seemed to resonate most with School Board member Reid Goldstein. “We heard the community speak loudly,” he said.
Goldstein said school leaders needed to be “engaged in a conversation [with the community] sooner rather than later” to address concerns that have been raised.
But his colleague Barbara Kanninen said students did themselves no favors in taking to social media to jump on the board’s decision-making without first checking their facts.
“If you all start tweeting and messaging . . . you’re going to start sharing misinformation,” she said, asking that those involved change “the tone of our conversation.”
“This isn’t a battle,” Kanninen said. “Let’s work together.”
School Board members gave no indication they planned to revisit their boundary vote, and students didn’t ask for them to do so. But there are more boundary adjustments coming: middle schools in 2017, elementary schools in 2018 and a more significant high-school adjustment in 2020 as school officials plan for a new high school opening in 2022.
“The processes going forward are going to be bigger and possibly more divisive,” Kanninen said.
Even before students began to focus on the ramifications of the boundary changes, their parents had been weighing in – often through social media – and were drawing the same rebukes from School Board members about spreading misinformation and pitting one school against another.
“It’s not acceptable to talk about schools not being good enough,” Kanninen said.
Saleha Hoffman, a student at Wakefield High School, said her school had as much to offer as Washington-Lee or Yorktown. She pointed to a “symphony of students with different languages and accents.”
“What better way to learn than to be surrounded by all kinds of students?” Hoffman said.
Diversity was one of the criteria used during the boundary-adjustment process, but so was drawing districts that were compact and didn’t force students far from their homes. The brisk (by Arlington standards) but contentious redistricting process also led to accusations that neighborhoods that complained the loudest received preferential treatment – a common refrain in Arlington civic activism.
Goldstein said what the school system was facing is not isolated, but emblematic of the county as a whole.
“Neighborhood schools reflect the housing stratification,” Goldstein said, calling on County Board members to find ways to economically diversify a county that has major racial, ethnic and socioeconomic fault lines based on geography.
“We [at the school system] will not be able to eradicate that,” Goldstein said.